Post-Pandemic Blues: The Chicago Blues Festival

POSTED:: June 5, 2024

FILED UNDER:: Concerts

                                                                      By Sonia Khatchadourian

Blues musicians and blues fans were elated to be together again in Millenium Park during June 9-12, 2022, when the Chicago Blues Festival resumed after a two-year pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The gratitude felt by everyone present was genuinely palpable. Although there were fewer stages than in previous years, when the event was across the street in Grant Park, there was still plenty of music throughout each day and over the course of the weekend on the Mississippi Juke Joint stage, the Rosa’s Lounge stage and on the main stage of the Jay Pritzker Pavilion.

There was also immense gratitude for the scheduled events, which included tributes to acknowledge the achievements of older musicians, including pianist Erwin Helfer and bassist Bob Stroger. Ninety-year-old Stroger received a “Bob Stroger Day” proclamation by the Chicago Mayor’s Office. When he heard the audience’s applause, he took off his glasses and told them, “You’re gonna make me cry.” He then performed with friends and collaborators saxophonist Sam Burckhardt, guitarist Billy Flynn, and drummer Kenny “Beady Eyes” Smith (son of Willie “Big Eyes” Smith).  Stroger and the band drew upon classics like “Key to The Highway,” and “Sweet Home Chicago,” which he said he does not usually do but wanted to show that “Chicago is coming back after the last couple of years.” They also performed songs from Stroger’s most recent album, That’s My Name (Delmark, 2022), including “Stranded in St. Louis” and the title track.  Stroger then stated, “My name is Bob Stroger, and I am the Blues.”

Another remarkable tribute was to Mary Lane with a “Women in Blues” segment hosted by Lynne Jordan with Peaches Staten, Shirley Johnson, Sheryl Youngblood, Demetria Taylor, Nora Jean Wallace, Laretha Weathersby, Sharon Lewis, Anne Harris and Donna Herula. It was truly a high point for so many talented female blues artists to be on stage together and in succession.

The tributes continued last year with an expanded four-day festival on June 8-11, 2023. The “Women in Blues” segment recognized Katharine Davis, Deitra Farr and Sugar Pie DeSanto. Although DeSanto could not be present, Davis and Farr performed a few of their own songs and were supported by guitarist Joanna Connor, singer Lynne Jordan, bassist Sheryl Weathersby, and drummer and singer Sheryl Youngblood, among others.

A Delmark Records 70th Anniversary Celebration was held for the iconic record label with lively collaborations between various artists, including Steve Bell, Willie Buck, Johnny Burgin, Johnny Iguana, Shirley Johnson, Sharon Lewis, Monica Myres, Dave Specter, Big Ray Stewart, Bob Stroger, Dave Weld, and Larry Williams.

There was also a centennial tribute to Albert King, hosted by Rico McFarland and which featured guitarists Donald Kinsey (son of Big Daddy Kinsey, who joined King’s band when he was only 17 years old), Larry McCray, Carl Weathersby, and keyboardist Tony Llorens, among others. Their renditions of classic Albert King songs like “I’ll Play the Blues for You” and “Crosscut Saw” displayed their tremendous skill and deep familiarity with King’s music from their time spent with him. 

Another moving 100th birthday celebration was held for Eddie Taylor with a performance by members of the talented Taylor family. It should be noted that Larry Taylor and the Taylor Family received a Global Music Award for their album, Generations of Blues (Nola Blue Records, 2023).

Wayne Baker Brooks (son of Lonnie Brooks), who was glad to have his own band perform with him on the main stage, also demonstrated that the next generation continues their family’s legacy by creating their own (as had Lurrie Bell, Cedric Burnside, and Robert Kimbrough, Sr. in 2022).

Also notable was a rousing collaboration with multi-instrumentalist Bobby Rush and The Blind Boys of Alabama. Rush started the show by playing solo acoustic guitar and then harmonica once the Blind Boys came to the stage. Rush told the audience that he had lived in Chicago for 50 years; that he recorded hundreds of songs, and that he would be 90 years old later in the year. His exceptional playing and singing were clearly timeless, as were witty jokes like: “You can have the blues if they leave you, but you can also have the blues if they stay too long.” In 2024, Rush won a Grammy Award (his third) in the Best Traditional Album category for All My Love For You (Deep Rush Records, 2023). The ten uplifting songs by the Blind Boys included their renditions of Curtis Mayfield’s “People Get Ready,” Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky,” and the traditional Gospel songs “God Knows Everything” and “Amazing Grace” (the latter done with an arrangement similar to “House of the Rising Son”).

Special recognitions and centennial tributes will also occur during this year’s festival on Friday, June 7 through Sunday, June 9, 2024.  Centennial tributes to guitarist Jimmy Rogers (Friday), vocalist Dinah Washington (Saturday) and pianist Otis Spann (Sunday) will bring together various musicians who will perform songs of the honorees. Especially notable is the tribute to Jimmy Rogers, which will include his son, Jimmy D. Lane, and grandson, Sebastian Lane, both of whom are accomplished guitarists. The Chicago Blues Fest officially starts at 6 p.m. on Thursday, June 6 with a concert by Shemekia Copeland (daughter of legendary guitarist Johnny Copeland who is now recognized by her own achievements) and Ronnie Baker Brooks (another stellar guitar player son of Lonnie Brooks) at the Ramova Theater on S. Halsted Street.

The headliner for the final evening is world-renowned legendary guitarist Buddy Guy, whose final tour began in 2023 and has been extended into 2024. His appearance at the fest will be one of his final Chicago appearances, so attendees can expect a memorable performance filled with reminiscences of his more than 60 years residing in Chicago, along with the possibility of family members joining Buddy on stage, as occurred last year on his tour with daughter Carlise Guy and son Greg Guy.

Emerging artists are also given the spotlight, which in recent years included guitarists Nick Alexander (son of contemporary blues guitarist Linsey Alexander), Ivy Ford, Jamiah Rogers and Joey Saye in 2022 and Stephen Hull in 2023. While the Chicago Blues Fest respectfully honors the past, it is very much immersed in the present and focuses on what lies ahead for the Blues genre, so those who attend will, most likely, discover unfamiliar performers who may become their new favorites.

POSTED BY:: Sidney McCain

TAGGED::Chicago Blues Festival, Concert review and Preview